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Saro Saroyan, who fled Azerbaijan, loves the history of his adopted town, known to Armenians as Shushi, but doesn’t feel that he will ever be fully integrated into local society. Image by Will Englund. Nagorno-Karabakh, 2011.

A former foreign minister of this unrecognized republic in the South Caucasus wants to distribute land in border areas to Armenians who fled Azerbaijan two decades ago when war broke out. Arman Meliqyan says this would be compensation for the property they lost when they fled — and it would also, intentionally, help to wreck the proposed peace deal that is on the table.

Azerbaijan, which still claims Nagorno-Karabakh, would be certain to see such a move as an enormous provocation. It says that, as the result of wide-scale ethnic cleansing, a million Azerbaijanis fled the territory now held by Karabakh forces, and that they want to return to their homes.

Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan stopped fighting in 1994, but have never come to terms. Both sides still shoot sporadically at each other across the so-called line of contact. Growing tension has already heightened fears that war could break out again — and that this time there’s a threat of drawing neighboring Russia, Iran and Turkey into the conflict. War would also probably disrupt a key supply route used by the United States to get equipment and other goods to its soldiers in Afghanistan.

Meliqyan’s idea is to move settlers into territories adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh itself that were seized by Armenian and Karabakh fighters during the war and have been held ever since. Those territories are now nearly empty of people, and most of the villages within them have been left in ruins. A framework peace agreement that Russia, France and the United States — together called the Minsk Group — have been trying to sponsor envisions the return of most of these lands to Azerbaijan.

If they were to be populated by ethnic Armenian settlers, that would become considerably more difficult. This is precisely what Meliqyan, who is completely opposed to the Minsk Group formula, hopes to achieve.

His plan inevitably raises the question of what compensation would be available for the Azerbaijanis who also fled — out of Karabakh — during the war. But he thinks that’s Azerbaijan’s problem.

Under Karabakh law, Armenians who fled Azerbaijan are entitled to land in the territories as compensation. But the program has never gotten underway, though a few settlers have trickled in on their own over the years. Meliqyan, who now heads an advocacy group in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, says his organization has submitted 35,000 applications for land and gotten no response.

“They’re not saying yes, and they’re not saying no,” he said of Karabakh’s leaders. “Sooner or later it will become a real question for them.”

Karabakh’s president, Bako Sahakyan, said the problem is that the territories are in such bad physical shape that it would take a major investment in roads and utilities just to make them habitable. He also made it clear he doesn’t want to undermine the peace talks. Another problem, said Karabakh’s prime minister, Ara Harutyunyan, is that most of those who left Azerbaijan were living in cities there, are used to an urban way of life and would be lost trying to set up farms.

It’s a half-good idea, said Saro Saroyan, a civil defense instructor who has become one of the most outspoken advocates for these dispersed people. (What to call them is a point of contention: Armenians use the word “refugee,” which is commonly reserved for people who have had to cross an international border. Azerbaijanis, who don’t recognize Karabakh’s independence, use the phrase “internally displaced persons,” arguing that they’re still in Azerbaijan. Some people here contend that those who fled Azerbaijan should be called “deportees.”)

The problem, as Saroyan sees it, is that a few acres of farmland would hardly compensate someone who had to give up an apartment in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, especially considering the oil wealth and rise in property values that Baku has enjoyed since the war ended.

Saroyan left Baku in 1988, when the first stirrings of the Karabakh independence movement were felt. He went first to Stepanakert but eventually wound up in Shushi — known as Shusha to the Azerbaijanis — where both his grandfathers served time in a Soviet prison in the 1930s: one for being a rich peasant, the other for being the driver of a car in an accident that killed an important communist official. He loves showing visitors around the old quarters of the town, which was Karabakh’s most important city when it was under Persian and later czarist Russian rule.

But being a modern-day homesteader doesn’t have much appeal for him. He misses Baku, where his driver grandfather is buried, and he said that, like others, he’s never felt entirely at home in Karabakh.

“We’re integrated in society, but we can’t be integrated 100 percent,” he said.

Project

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Twenty years in limbo: Nothing exemplified the collapse of the Soviet Union like the bloody fighting over Nagorno Karabakh, and today that enclave remains a source of bitterness and tension.

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